Accuracy in Media

AIM Report Ignites a Debate Over Senator Joe McCarthy’s Record: Donald A. Ritchie, the Senate Associate Historian, Exchanges Views with Journalist Wes Vernon and M. Stanton Evans, author of  Blacklisted by History: The Untold Story of Senator Joe McCarthy and His Fight Against America’s Enemies

(The following exchange of letters from Donald Ritchie, Wes Vernon, and M. Stanton Evans concerns Wes Vernon’s AIM Report, The Ultimate Vindication of Joe McCarthy.)  

Dear [AIM Editor] Mr. Kincaid,

In the interest of accuracy, and since I see no place to post a comment, please let me suggest that you provide some additional information to the readers of Accuracy in Media concerning “The Ultimate Vindication of Joe McCarthy.”

First, the release of Senator McCarthy’s executive session transcripts was not meant to be a “document dump.” It was the product of a thirty-year effort on the part of the Senate Historical Office to open the closed hearings that scholars had been requesting.  Concerned about the privacy of witnesses, particularly those who never testified in public, the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations invoked the 50-year-rule.  I explained this history in an article on “Releasing Joe McCarthy,” at http://www.oah.org/pubs/nl/2003aug/mccarthy.html 

To make the hearings accessible outside of the National Archives, where the originals are housed, we published them in a five-volume set and posted them on the Internet::http://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/common/generic/McCarthy_Transcripts.htm 

Annie Lee Moss was not one of the 500 witnesses whom McCarthy heard in executive session.  Due to illness, she missed a closed door hearing and appeared only in public session.  Since that appearance was among the most prominent in the hearings, I included three paragraphs about her in the introductory essays, also included in the online version.  I did not seek to “trash” Mary Markward’s testimony by quoting the Subversive Control Board’s conclusion that “Markward’s testimony should be assayed with caution,” since I don’t consider caution a pejorative, and I think some caution is still advisable before making any “ultimate” assessments, especially since Markward was unable to identify Annie Lee Moss personally, having never met her, but could only point to her name and address in the Communist Party’s membership rolls.  There were discrepancies in the Party’s recordkeeping and there is contradictory evidence in Senator McCarthy’s committee files at the National Archives, so it remains a matter for further scholarly investigation.  

Finally, while I appreciate the reference to my chapter on “The Friends of Joe McCarthy,” from my book, Reporting from Washington: The History of the Washington Press Corps (Oxford University Press, 2005), it is not a “memoir.”  I study journalists but have never worked as one.   

The book focuses on the tensions between advocacy and objectivity in the press, arguing that while advocacy is not illegitimate―there are good causes to promote―too much advocacy tends to undermine the credibility of journalists on both the right and left.  The chapter deals with those reporters who most avidly supported McCarthy and how they themselves expressed, in their own memoirs and oral histories, a feeling that their identity with McCarthy lessened their standing in the Washington press corps.  From them, I drew the conclusion that Senator McCarthy’s ends-justify-the-means tactics worked against the movement that he promoted and that those who suffered most from “McCarthyism” may have been his own supporters. 

Sincerely,

Donald A. Ritchie

Senate Historical Office

Washington, DC 20510

Reply to Donald Ritchie

By Wes Vernon 

1—Mr. Ritchie says the 2003 release of five volumes of the 1953-54 executive sessions was not “meant” to be a “document dump.”  I understand the 50-year rule in regard to releasing old Senate testimony. The term “document dump” is nonetheless appropriate when one considers the manner in which the transcripts were released to the public.  The committee—led by Senators Susan Collins and Carl Levin―called a press conference to trash the committee’s work under Senator McCarthy’s chairmanship.  

The transcripts themselves were laced with Mr. Ritchie’s comments. He may very well have “meant” to be seen as “objective,” but the weight of his notes—taken in the composite―make it clear that he shares essentially the negative Edward R. Murrow/Drew Pearson view of McCarthy’s anti-communist endeavors (See M. Stanton Evans comments below).  It comes out also in his complaint to AIM. 

In my 40 years in Washington, I cannot recall another instance where invoking the 50-year rule was accompanied by a press conference for the specific purpose of putting a negative spin on the work of the chairman who conducted the long-ago hearings, and where the press corps was then given less than a week to digest nearly 5,000 pages. Collins, Levin and Co. helpfully filled in those blanks by making it easy for already liberal reporters to follow their prejudices about Joseph McCarthy. No one apparently considered the possibility of simply releasing the hearings so as to let them speak for themselves. 

Having read every line of all five volumes, I am willing to say that McCarthy comes off as very reasonable. On very few occasions was he sharp with witnesses and in my opinion, they deserved it. Example: An educator husband and wife team taking the Fifth Amendment when asked about Communist Party connections should not be surprised that a senator would be outraged and would question their right to continue in positions where they influence young children.   

2―I am willing to make the semantic concession to Mr. Ritchie that—contrary to my impressions―his book was not a de facto memoir. 

In terms of substance, however, he notes that conservative journalists who supported McCarthy expressed in their memoirs the “feeling that their identity with the Wisconsin Republican lessened their standing in the Washington press corps.” 

That is correct as far as it goes. The relevant question goes to exactly what led to the reduced standing with their fellow journalists. In that respect, the problem lies with Mr. Ritchie’s 2-+-2=5 conclusion that the “lessened standing” of pro-McCarthy writers with the rest of the D.C. journalistic fraternity was evidence “that Senator McCarthy’s ends-justify-the-means tactics worked against the movement that he promoted…..” 

There is no question that journalists supporting McCarthy drew hostility from many of their peers in a Washington press corps which―survey after survey has shown―overwhelmingly swings left. Robert Novak recalls in his Prince of Darkness (which was his own memoir) that—as a cub reporter in Washington―he was read what amounted to the riot act by his colleagues because he had covered (with his own follow-up interview) a 1957 communist-exposing hearing by a Democrat-controlled Senate panel (not the old McCarthy committee, and it happened after McCarthy was dead and buried). Young Novak was told “We don’t interview” anyone from the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee because “they don’t deserve it.” A classic example of a liberal herd instinct. 

Ritchie himself notes that some of the late Ralph de Toledano’s colleagues stopped talking to him after he fingered the guilt of Soviet spy Alger Hiss and also that Doris Fleeson terminated an office-sharing agreement with May Craig because the latter had written some favorable things about McCarthy. 

So, many liberal Washington journalists tend to lack warm feelings for their conservative colleagues. What else is new? Conversely, liberal writers are lionized in D.C. watering holes. Want an example? Try to make the case with a straight face that the Washington journalist fraternity would be as supportive of a conservative journalist who asked the same style of rude, biased, ideological and loaded questions that the liberal Helen Thomas tosses at the White House briefings. Washington reporters—by and large—seem to believe Thomas walks on water. 

A journalist in Washington often realizes that being identified as a conservative can be poison. In fact, there are powerful figures—in and out of Washington and in and out of journalism―who have made it their life’s mission to destroy the career of any young conservative in the profession who shows promise to move ahead. That “lessened standing” with their colleagues says more about their colleagues than it does about the conservative scribes who are the targets of liberal “pack journalism” ire.  

But in the end, journalism’s “friends of Joe McCarthy” were targeted also through boycotts of their advertisers. The late Fulton Lewis, Jr. told me that there was an ongoing effort to starve his nightly commentary off the Mutual network. It started with his coverage of the Army-McCarthy hearings (wherein he reported a lot of facts the media of that era suppressed or played down, which would appear more than a half century later in M. Stanton Evans’ shoe leather work Blacklisted by History). That boycott of the Lewis broadcast was still going full tilt when he told me about it in 1960―six years later. The only thing that saved Lewis was that he was smart enough to develop a co-op system whereby his sponsors were at the local level—different advertisers in different towns and cities. That way the enemies of free speech could not concentrate their fire on just one advertiser, but had to extend themselves into hundreds of communities—which they did with mixed results. 

As explained in my AIM piece, the conservative journalists and outlets that had backed McCarthy ultimately became fewer in number because of deaths, retirements, mergers, or new more leftward management. 

The point is that—contrary to Ritchie’s implications—their demise was due to factors other than McCarthy’s (non-existent, in my view) “ends-justify-the-means tactics.” It was the tactics of his most powerful critics that were mean and dirty. 

3―Finally, we come to Mr. Ritchie’s obfuscation in the Annie Lee Moss case. And for that, we can do no better than to call in the most known authoritative present-day source—M Stanton Evans whose treatment of the case in Blacklisted by History is the result of years―years―of painstaking investigation.

 

Donald Ritchie, Annie Lee Moss and Joe McCarthy

By M. Stanton Evans 

As I have had some prior experience with associate Senate historian Donald Ritchie and his treatment of the Annie Lee Moss affair, the editors at AIM asked me for my observations on the case. 

To understand Ritchie’s handling of this matter, a few background data are essential. Annie Lee Moss was a black woman working for the U.S. Army as a code clerk in the early ‘50s, called before the McCarthy panel to answer allegations of subversion. She had been identified to McCarthy by undercover FBI informant Mary Markward as a member of the Communist Party, based on Markward’s knowledge of Communist records in the District of Columbia. 

When Mrs. Moss appeared to answer these assertions she claimed it was a mistaken-identity problem and that some other Annie Lee Moss was the culprit they were after. This explanation was seized upon by Democratic members of the panel, broadcast to the nation by Edward R. Murrow on his TV program “See It Now,” and repeated as the truth about the case in numerous discussions of McCarthy. 

All of this, however, was flagrant falsehood, as revealed by the findings of the Subversive Activities Control Board (SACB), set up by Congress to monitor the Communist Party and its agents. When Mary Markward was called by the board as an expert witness to testify about the secret doings of the party, the Communists sought to challenge her credibility. One of the issues raised concerned her compensation from the FBI for working as an undercover agent. Another, in response to the publicity given Moss, was that Markward had perjured herself in branding Moss a CP member. 

This challenge caused the SACB to call for and examine the records of the D.C. Communist Party, on which basis the board concluded in the fall of 1958 that the CP records showed an Annie Lee Moss of 72 R St. Southwest in the District to have been a member of the party. As 72 R St. had been the address of the Moss appearing before McCarthy, it was thus obvious that the mistaken-identity plea was bogus. 

This dispositive finding of 50 years ago (backed by other official data since) was highly inconvenient for the critics of McCarthy, who have blithely continued to repeat the mistaken-identity thesis throughout the intervening decades and feature it in histories of the era. In such treatments, the SACB report is either ignored entirely or handled in garbled, double-talking fashion, thereby evading the obvious but for leftward historians unspeakable conclusion that McCarthy was correct about the case and his foes demonstrably in error. 

The handling of the matter by Donald Ritchie, in his notes to the McCarthy executive hearings, is in this obfuscatory tradition. In a discussion of the Moss affair, footnoted to three academic studies, Ritchie throws in a brief reference to the SACB report, but so phrased as to blur its meaning. He notes that the board confirmed the Markward testimony about Moss, but then adds the cryptic comment that “the board conducted no further investigation of Moss” and had said “Markward’s testimony should be assayed with caution.” 

These asides can only suggest to readers that there is some lingering doubt about the case—the more so as Ritchie follows up with an extended eulogy to Moss offered by a liberal writer, attesting to her blameless conduct. All of this, however, is still more obfuscation, mantling the truth about the case in verbal smokescreens and thus warding off the necessity of conceding that McCarthy was from the outset right about it, as shown by the official records. 

For one thing, the point of the SACB inquiry, as the board repeatedly stressed, wasn’t to investigate Moss but to gauge the credibility of Markward. There was neither intent nor reason to pursue the Moss case beyond acquisition of the Communist records to verify the Markward statements. Thus Ritchie’s gratuitous comment about “no further investigation of Moss” is a red herring, suggesting some SACB action on Moss had been projected but mysteriously never taken. 

Likewise, the board’s comment about viewing Markward’s evidence “with caution” concerned the matter of payment from the FBI, and the way Markward construed this, and specifically didn’t pertain to Moss. As the board put it in yet another ruling (January 15, 1959), again citing CP records, “we conclude that … the Communist Party’s charge that Markward gave perjurious testimony is not substantiated. Consequently, Mrs. Markward’s credibility is in no way impaired by the Annie Lee Moss matter….” 

So despite the verbal fuzzballs of Donald Ritchie, the SACB unequivocally said Markward was corroborated in the Moss affair, and never made any findings that weakened this conclusion. In fact, reviewing half a dozen SACB references to the subject, it’s evident the Moss case was the matter that most clearly bolstered Markward’s credibility with the board. All of which is the exact reverse of the impression conveyed to the American public by the associate historian of the Senate. 

P.S. The SACB findings on the Moss affair were by no means the final word about the subject, as FBI files pertaining to the case have now been made available to researchers. These show the FBI data on the case weren’t based simply on the say-so of Markward, but that the Bureau had obtained, as the SACB suggested, copies of the Communist Party records. The FBI file further shows that the Army itself had been trying to have Moss removed as a security risk and that Democrats on the McCarthy panel had been fully briefed by the FBI about the case before the phony mistaken-identity plea was ever surfaced.




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